Opinion: The Planet Needs More Plant Scientists

Academia is not producing sufficient PhDs in the plant sciences to solve the crop production challenges facing a rapidly growing population.

By Alan M. Jones | October 1, 2014

FLICKR, JOI ITOWhile the message is not new, the declaration of the flaws of the US biomedical research system by four prominent life scientists this spring captured everyone’s attention. Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus wrote in PNAS of how “demands for research dollars grew much faster than the supply . . . [due to] perverse incentives [that] encourage grantee institutions to grow without making sufficient investments in their faculty and facilities.” Rather than devote money to faculty salaries, universities built infrastructure to house more self-paid researchers able to bring in more money via research grants, of which a large fraction was used as revenue (overhead) for the university. More labs required more students to fill them, leading to a dramatic rise of PhDs in the biomedical sciences, which then produced more researchers competing for dwindling grant dollars. In short, research institutions have no incentive to support individual faculty and instead have perverse incentives to encourage further research spending: more grants = more overhead = more buildings = more PIs = more PhDs in an increasingly out-of-control spiral. (See “PhDs in the U.S.”) This is not sustainable, and we are now experiencing the consequences, with the most despairing being the lack of adequate jobs for our postdocs and perceived insufficient funding for all of us.

PhDs in the U.S.: From 1982 to 2012, the total number of PhDs in the life sciences (blue) has grown dramatically. Most of these PhDs are in biological, biomedical, and health sciences (red), however; the number of PhDs in the agricultural and natural sciences (green) has remained flat over that same time period. The unsustainable rate of PhDs awarded per year in the biomedical sciences does not extrapolate to the rate of PhDs in other life sciences, however, especially the agricultural sciences, where the rate of PhDs per year has remained flat for decades. Since 1982, we have consistently trained only about 1,000 PhDs in applied agricultural and related sciences each year. And over the last decade, the U.S. has annually produced only 800 or so plant scientists working in applied agricultural science and only 100 with the skills for basic plant research. (See “Plant science stagnates.”) Given the global agricultural challenges we now face, this is a problem.

The Earth must support another 1 billion humans in the coming decade, and must do so with less arable land and in an unpredictable climate. This means we must find innovative ways to produce crops with higher yields and novel traits—a feat that will require the work of PhDs trained in agriculture and plant sciences. But at this point we are not producing enough plant scientists to lead us out of this Malthusian dilemma.

The US Coalition for a Sustainable Agricultural Workforce recently completed a confidential survey among agricultural biotech companies to ascertain near-term needs for hiring domestic agricultural scientists. This survey generated an amazing result, given the tone of the PNAS perspective, predicting that by 2015, 1,000 new employees will be needed in the half-dozen largest plant-science companies in the US alone (Bayer Crop Science, Dow Agro Sciences, Dupont Pioneer Hybrid, Dupont Crop Protection, Monsanto, and Syngenta). Almost half of these anticipated new hires will hold PhDs. Unfortunately, with what appears to be a dwindling pool of qualified applicants applying to plant science PhD programs, we may not be keeping up with this demand.

Plant science stagnates: Selected subdisciplines relevant to a work force in plant industry (blue and green) have not increased this century, while selected biomedical subdisciplines (red) have grown steeply.

Biomedical subdisciplines include bioinformatics, biomedical sciences, biometrics and biostatistics, cancer biology, computational biology, developmental biology/embryology, neurosciences and neurobiology, structural biology, virology. Basic plant biology subdisciplines (green) include botany/plant biology, plant genetics, plant pathology/phytopathology, plant physiology. Agricultural research subdisciplines (blue) include agricultural and horticultural plant breeding, agricultural economics, agronomy and crop science, forest engineering, forest sciences and biology, forestry and related science, horticulture science, plant pathology/phytopathology (applied), plant sciences (other), soil chemistry/microbiology, soil sciences, entomology, plant genetics, plant pathology/phytopathology applied plant physiology.
The growing world population needs to eat, and it is past due that we elevate basic, translational, and applied plant research to the priority given to biomedical research, or more boldly, to defense. Stabilizing food supplies in a changing environment is integral not only to the world population’s health, as an estimated 50 percent of childhood disease globally is attributed to malnourishment, but also to national security. Moreover, a recent study found that, around the world, the rate of return for investment in agricultural research is ten to one, bringing into question the scaling back of funding for agriculture research and development in many rich countries.   

Going forward, we must infuse more resources into plant biology research, to boost research output and to train tomorrow’s plant scientists. In the early 1980s, the National Science Foundation (NSF) established an 11-year postdoctoral fellowship program with the primary objective to nurture future leaders of plant biology research. By many accounts, this program was successful; among a cohort of 236 fellows, four are members of the National Academy of Sciences today, and more than 80 percent remained in plant biology. Of those, the majority stayed in academic institutions, while an impressive number (25 percent) went to industry, where many now hold corporate officer positions. Anticipating the need for leaders to alleviate hunger and to prevent global instability, we should reinstate this program to recruit our best talent to plant science and agricultural research.

In conclusion, it is important that the sirens of a glut of biomedical PhDs do not fallaciously harm other areas of science that are still in desperate need of young researchers and more research funding. This is especially true for the plant sciences, where the next generation of researchers must conquer significant challenges to feed a growing world population in a changing environment.    

Acknowledgement: I thank Machi Dilworth for providing annotated data on the NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship program. Data source: NSF.

Alan M. Jones is a Kenan Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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Avatar of: Keith Loritz

Keith Loritz

Posts: 29

October 2, 2014

Nature is too slow, too dirty and too unreliable to meet mans needs. Man will need to Decouple from nature in order to continue. Synthetic food at the flip of a switch is the only future for a hungry population and a species that reaches for the stars. Not Soylent Green (people) but non-GMO, pesticide-free, microbe-free large molecule macro nutrients made by machine in a sterile micro-environment instead of being produced by plant in dirt (PID). It must happen if we are to survive as a species, we are one fungus away from a total colapse of our food system. Put all those idle researches to work on this!

October 2, 2014

The premise of a demand is laughable because since the 1980, I have been hearing that the actual demand for PhDs in the Plant sciences is shrinking .

As a former plant molecular physiologist, I can say i knew the market. There is no need to increase the number the trainees (phd students).   If the companies and academia increase, then let market forces bid up the salaries and the students will follow.

Otherwise, this is propaganda from an industry shill.

October 2, 2014



Prof. Jones ignores one obvious solution to the supposed plant scientist shortage:

Convert the massive surplus of Biomed Phds to whatever plant scientist role is needed.  I have worked in both and multiple roles and communities. There is a great overlap in training and skill set between plant scientists and biomed scientists.  With a few months to a year, most of those biomed scientists will be up to speed and surpassing the plant scientists.

   I am going to give a solution to this mess:  instead of grants funding graduate students, mandate that instead MS and PhD students fund themselves. This restore negative feedback look (market forces).   It tend to eliminate bad programs and bad mentors (where students cannot recover their investment), and right size the whole steaming smelly mess.

   Another reform for which a new opinion piece is printed: separate research grants from training .  I am for this reform. https://www.the-scientist.com//?articles.view/articleNo/41162/title/Opinion--Separate-Training-from-Research-Budgets/


Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

October 2, 2014

Doctor Jones is no industry shill.  However, A_R_S is wholly correct to point out the supply-demand issue regarding whether people should jump into these fields.  I have a feeling, however, that Doctor Jones is bringing forth his own ulterior motive, grant dollars.  If the university biomedical-governmental complex produced the graphs' red lines above while simultaneously increasing grant dollars, why can't that same thing be produced for the plant sciences (something Doctor Jones is currently intimately involved)?  For the biomedical fields, grant dollars came first, and the very low cost Ph. D. labor followed.  Hence, if the grants just increased, then more people could be trained. 

Yes, but as A_R_S points out, then what?  Will those people then automatically get the jobs they were trained for?  If one looks at the trained biomedical scientists since 1980, the answer is a flat out "No!"

October 2, 2014

I defer to P. Stern's assessment, about the shill dig.. I was wrong. He appears to be more of an academic shill .

     I was  cynically amused by the A_R_S, acronym.  I did work for the USDA ARS.  I and my cohort of post-docs found little evidence of a market for Plant Scientists in government, academia or industry.   From my sources, the job market for Plant Science PhDs has declined steadily over decades. 

   The truth is in the USA we have enough production, and no real need for plant science researchers. Most of the problems with food distribution are political, cultural and economic. There is plenty food to feed people around the world but since it is not profitable, is is not happening.

Avatar of: sutty


Posts: 1

October 2, 2014

Interesting, given that me and approximately 90% of all the other phd holders that I know that have received their phds in plant biology since 2006 still don't have a job...

October 2, 2014

Sutty, I feel your pain, and I know recent PhDs in Plant Science and Biomedical science that are in that same situation.  Way back , I was in a forum with a big non-profit donator and the word was there would be 1/2 to 2/3 less ag schools. 

That has not happened . Ag schools continue but the PhD graduates piled up and are piling up. 

Back at the original opinion piece; a major premise was the PREDICTED shortage based on a self reporting, push survey.  As a scientist I am appauled that the writer presents this as evidence.  Again it is an opinion piece and the wrong opinion.

  Biomed and ag institutions fail to reduce the student population; a necessity due to shrinking ACTUAL demand for PhDs.

Avatar of: David Bird

David Bird

Posts: 3

October 3, 2014

I'm a plant biologist as well.  I'd like to agree - but if we solved today's food "shortage" problem without controlling population growth, we'd only create another food crisis in 20 years.  So sure, we need more plant biologists, and more plant biology grant monies for all of us plant biology types.  But perhaps we still need to with our unsustainable human behaviours and reproduction.


Avatar of: DBS28


Posts: 1

October 3, 2014

While more Ph.D.'s in plant science research may be at odds with the availability of academic positions and grant funding, it seems clear that we lack sufficient understanding of plant science in this country. 1,000 highly educated plant scientists per year in a technology-driven economy of more than 300 million, is far from enough. Plant science literacy and capacity is needed in a host of areas including public policy and public service, journalism, law, agriculture and many other parts of the private sector. Our failure is perhaps not to train plant science students far enough beyond the laboratory, and/or to allow them to believe and assume that only an academic destination qualifies as success. There are many possible, and valuable trajectories that are grounded in a theoretical and experimental understanding of how plants are built and how they function. 

A revolution in training can revitalize the attractiveness and career prospects in plant science, with a commensurate benefit to our society and beyond.

Avatar of: Steve Hales

Steve Hales

Posts: 11

October 3, 2014

The comments show a disconnect between how the employers and the potential employees see the market. The demand in this survey is for scientists to work for the big Ag products companies, which is a rather specialized slice of the job market. Plant science departments may select for academic types who are not inclined to work in industry, and big business at that. It is a very different environment from the lab most students are trained in, so a disconnect in expectations is not a big surprise.

From what I see of the job market, the PhDs in my department are being snapped up by both academe and industry (if not those six big companies). They are getting substantial responsibilities much sooner than they would in academe. I think all those who wanted an industry job in recent years has landed one. So there are pockets where hiring is happening.

That said, ~500 jobs a year is a lot, so we are not contributing very much to that need. (The survey tallied 1000 in the 2013-14 two-year period, though under half are for PhDs)

There are not that many research-leader positions, which will make the market seem thinner for those who are looking for that particular job.  I also suspect some of those are post-doc equivalents where they anticipate a fair amount of attrition within five years. That attrition can lead to a significant pool of disgruntled PhDs with uncertain career prospects.

October 4, 2014

There are certain mentors and institutions where graduating PhD students might have better success, because of the success of the research leader.

I am going to speculate students of  acclaimed and awarded professors like Mike

Thomashaw would have better luck than the majority.  

Replied to a comment from Aging_Recycled_Scientist made on October 4, 2014

October 4, 2014

How can we dance when our beds are burning...

within 50 to 200 years man will cause an extinction event due to massive CO2 injection in the atmosphere.   All these other considerations are minor and meaningless.


Avatar of: Alexandru


Posts: 94

October 5, 2014

"Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted." (Albert Einstein)

In my opinion, The Planet needs wise people capable to NEGOTIATE the human knowledge produced in time, because "all is done in larger, better and easier when someone is doing one thing, after the suitability of his time, and, leaving aside other" (Platon).

Because "Nature is too slow, too dirty and too unreliable to meet mans needs" (Keith Loritz), "yes, it is OK understanding planet needs (gene editing), but we shall make it work for ... US, not only for ME or for YOU." (my comment on https://www.the-scientist.com//?articles.view/articleNo/40750/title/Understanding-Gene-Editing-and-Making-It-Work-for-You/)

Avatar of: Postdoc Julian

Postdoc Julian

Posts: 1

October 11, 2014

I am a biochemistry PhD graduate currently working as a postdoc. I was trained in basic plant science working in signaling important in plant development and plant immunity, with the aim of eventually being a professor or having skills that could give me a chance to work for industry. I am currently in a postdoctoral position with limited benefits, no contributions to any retirement plan; I am in my mid-thirties. In my experience (that I am well aware could be biased), the industry jobs mentioned in this article are being filled with undergraduates who are quickly trained in what companies require and are far more affordable than PhDs and postdocs. I am seeing my generation of peers fall off science quietly into other fields or positions that require half of the preparation we have received.

Seeing departments and professors recruit students to sustain for grad school and as postdocs just to support their scientific output, because, let's be honest, few if any of them will eventually be academics, makes me think there is something terribly wrong, almost unethical, with the way this system operates. If you want to increase the number of PhDs in plant science, you should not only try to get more funding for these positions but also create career paths that are clearer and attractive, are there figures for how many employees at this companies currently hold PhDs or have been postdocs before? This data would probably be useful.


Replied to a comment from Postdoc Julian made on October 11, 2014

October 13, 2014

@ Postdoc Julian: you should have gotten the memo about the academic pyramid scheme, 15 years ago.  Sorry if you missed it.

Avatar of: Lakota


Posts: 2

October 14, 2014

I am new to this but have had visions of plant communication and how to translate their language it is far more advanced than anything I've read and I would like to help...how and who should I contact...


Avatar of: Lakota


Posts: 2

Replied to a comment from Aging_Recycled_Scientist made on October 13, 2014

October 14, 2014

Time is but an illusion but I have now thank you.( I know was not originally for me but that's how messages happen sometimes..). Not money orientated though.


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